Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: The problem in a nutshell!

So, here is the problem, in a nutshell. 

If we are to live the industrial/urban lifestyle of the developed countries and strive for equality in the world, we can sustain not more than 1.5 billion people. Currently we are 7 billion people, and are headed towards a final count of 10 billion. None of the previous lifestyles that we have transitioned through so far have the carrying capacity for so many people. I am aware that there are a number of environmental movements today advocating going back to 'traditional' ways of life, by rejecting all fruits of industrial progress. I am sorry, but this is not going to solve the problem at all, even if each and every human being decided to take this path. In other words, we cannot maintain status quo and anyone who preaches going back to previous lifestyles as the solution is living in a fool's paradise. 

What I have outlined above is a 'problem' assuming that we do want all humans to enjoy all possible comforts of life equally. We may decide not to believe in the principle of equality and accept that it is all right to have a growing social and economic divide between groups of humans. In that case, we can keep pushing the envelop of the industrial/urban life style so that at least some lucky (or ruthless and cunning!) individuals will be able to enjoy prosperity.

The problem with this approach is that if about 20% people are enjoying all the fruits of a civilisation fueled by the physical and intellectual labour of the remaining 80% people, the 80% "GIVERS" are not going to just be passive and allow the "TAKERS" to perpetually exploit them. The social and economic stresses will keep piling up until finally the tension will reach the catastrophic limit and the fabric of human civilisation may tear up into mere tatters. So this path is sure to lead to devastating destruction. In fact, when the industrial/urban society will have totally collapsed, all surviving humans would indeed be on equal footing - they all will be equally resource poor and undergoing equal hardships! If you are surrounded by barren desert, it doesn't matter whether you have a fat bank balance or not, you will still face the same struggle as the beggar with no bank account at all. So there is prudence in believing in and striving for equality of humans in relatively prosperous contentment!  

Climate change and its potential impacts add another dimension to this problem. 

Climate change in the broadest sense of the word includes all changes that happen in the composition of the earth's atmosphere. The earth's climate has always changed, through a variety of causes, and has always impacted life on the planet. In fact, life became possible on this planet because its climate changed in very unique ways - something that has not been observed on any other planet so far. Irrespective of how and why it is caused, climate change irrevocably changes the geographical distribution as well as limits of availability/accessibility of various resources required to 'fuel' the human settlement at a particular location. Climate change can therefore hugely mess up all our calculations of the numbers of limiting population sizes for specific lifestyles, and can have a potentially adverse impact on any 'rescue' strategy we may come up with. Therefore we must not make the mistake of ignoring climate change. 

This is a real problem - and an existential problem - but only for us, humans. We need to try and find our way around it for the survival of our species - not to 'save the planet' or 'to protect the environment' or any such lofty goal. The Earth has been in existence for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to exist as long as our sun is burning, which is another 5 billion years or so. During the past 4.5 billion years, many species have evolved, and gone extinct on this planet. Even in the Genus Homo (to which we belong) there have been many species before us, and the process of evolution is relentlessly on, albeit at a very very slow pace. If the human civilisation collapses and fades away, the earth will continue to be there, and life in some form or other will continue to thrive on it. May be a few billion years in the future some other species will try to solve the mystery of our extinction as we today struggle with trying to understand how and why the dinosaurs went into extinction!  

Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech